Drayer: What we can learn about Mariners from key points in their 90-win season
Outlook. Gut check. Turning point? Three posts from key points in the Mariners’ 2021 season covered those themes, and they were written full well knowing they would be revisited.
The Hot Stove will be fired up soon (and a podcast released even sooner), and questions about the future will be addressed shortly by Mariners general manager/president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto, but the lights shouldn’t be shut off on the 2021 team quite yet.
The looks back this year will be far less painful than many of past years, so why not enjoy and perhaps learn a bit, as well?
(Editor’s note: Paragraphs in italics are excerpts from the previous stories linked at the top of the passage it is featured in.)
Every season I write a “What Have They Got?” post as the Mariners break camp in Arizona and head north to T-Mobile Park. This year, the team would be a work in progress.
Getting the young players experience at the big league level and continuing to grow them was the priority at the start of the second full season post-tear down. These were words Marco Gonzales and other young vets did not like hearing.
“I’ve never been a fan of being told when it’s OK to win,” the Mariners’ opening night starting pitcher said in spring training.
Still, entertaining thoughts of postseason or, for some, even a winning season seemed rather outrageous outside the Mariners clubhouse in Peoria, Ariz. Big additions were not made to the roster in the offseason, and while what we saw from the youth in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season was encouraging, were 60 games enough to really get a handle on what they were?
The season outlook post featured a “youth” segment with quotes from three young players who would start the season as regulars. As it turned out, all three stalled in 2021. Evan White and Justin Dunn struggled before seeing their seasons end with injuries, and Kyle Lewis played in just 36 games as knee injuries both delayed and eventually ended his 2021 campaign.
What we did see in Peoria was an emerging core of players that would be carried on from start to finish of the regular season.
A recurring theme in conversations with players this spring in Peoria – both young and not so young – was the amount of work that was being put in by teammates. There was talk of teammates getting after it, teammates not having the odd off day and just taking it easy, teammates not looking for excuses not to work. If this was a problem with individuals in the past, by all accounts there was no trace of it this spring.
“Our standards have been raised here,” said manager Scott Servais, crediting the core players for leading the charge in holding one and other accountable.
This was evident throughout the season. From daily, early and extra infield work to players from all parts of the clubhouse talking about holding each other accountable, even without clubhouse access for media members it was clear there was strong player leadership and a strong sense of team. Impossible to quantify, but nonetheless invaluable.
May has not been kind to the Mariners.
The Mariners entered the second month of the season with a 15-12 record, just a game out of first place in the American League West, but on May 26 they found themselves just a game out of the cellar at 21-26. They had been swept in back-to-back series by the Tigers and Padres and been no-hit twice that month. A total of 11 regulars were on the injured list – seven due to injury and four more due to COVID protocols.
This seemed to be sink-or-swim time, with many perhaps not seeing that swim was even an option at this point.
The concern now should not be about what the Mariners did this weekend or what their record is on May 24; rather, it should continue to be what they do moving forward. This season was never going to be judged on wins and losses. It was and continues to be about the development of young players, and along those lines, even in the worst of series, much can be learned.
“This is where you can evaluate – not just talent, but you can evaluate character, as well,” Ryan Rowland-Smith pointed out on a recent Mariners postgame show. “When you go through stretches like this, true colors of personalities come out. If you really want to get a good look and snapshot into seeing what you are going to have as part of this core team and organization, who’s going to be on board, man, how do you respond?”
Very well, thank you.
A team meeting coming out of San Diego perhaps lit the spark, or at least reeled in the focus. From May 24 on, the Mariners put up the second-best record in the American League, though it wasn’t exactly smooth sailing quite yet. While the Mariners won seven of eight from May 24-31, they then lost eight of their next 11. Through June 12 they were still very much on the roller coaster, but then things started to smooth out.
The question was, “Is this real?”
On June 12, the Mariners had lost seven of their last 10 games and had been 2-hit by Cleveland’s Aaron Civale the night before. Things starting looking up, however, as they took a 4-0 lead into the eighth inning against the Indians. Breakout reliever Kendall Graveman gave up his first run of the season, a solo home run off the bat of César Hernández to make it 4-1, but still Rafael Montero was entrusted with a comfortable three-run lead in the ninth.
What ensued next was a baseball horror show, with Montero sacrificing three two-out runs to tie it in the ninth, and Paul Sewald turning a double play ball into an error to allow the winning run to score in the 10th.
At that point, it would be hard to fault anyone for wondering, “Is this it?” Is this the time, with too many key players injured and too many young players not able to hold things up on their own, that we don’t see this club bounce back?
Oh, did that story turn quickly.
As it turns out, there wasn’t even time to take that breath. A feel-good win the next day against reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Shane Bieber and the Indians – despite the loss of Mitch Haniger to what looked like (and in a turn of serious good fortune did not turn out to be) a serious knee injury – kicked off a week of performances against the Twins and Rays that led to me doing the unthinkable. On the 710 ESPN Seattle postgame show following the Mariners’ 6-5 walkoff win on Saturday night, out of absolutely nowhere I declared that we were witnessing the team turning the corner.
Not just the 2021 Mariners turning the corner – the entire rebuild. The declaration was based more on feel than anything, but there is a lot of experience behind that feel. It looked right, it felt right, but still I walked it back a bit because it sounded outlandish.
So while I was surprised that I said what I said, I still circled this homestand on the schedule as perhaps the week that we will look back on as the beginning of, well, the beginning.
Starting with the June 12 win over Beiber and the Indians, the Mariners went 58-37, good for a .610 winning percentage. They lost more than two games in a row just twice in those final 95 games. The Mariners brought a run differential of minus-66 into June 13. After, they recorded a run differential of plus-15.
There is little question the right date was circled in terms of the season, as it was where the Mariners got away from the dips and dives of the roller coaster and onto a road with more manageable curves. But for June 13 to be a true watershed moment in terms of the goals that were articulated at the start of the team’s step back in the fall of 2018, we need to see continued improvement next year.
There is still plenty of road ahead, but keep that June 13, 2021 date circled.
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